Thoughts on Dialogue

People tell me I write dialogue reasonably well. So, I decided to put down my thoughts about it.

Now there are a lot of rules that people will tell you about when to use “said*,” sentence length and voice, but in my experience, you can ignore those as long as you follow two simple guidelines.

  1. Dialogue sounds like conversation.
  2. Dialogue is not conversation.

At first glance, there seems to be a bit of contradiction in these two statements. And there is a little, but I believe that good dialogue resides in that ambiguity.

For example, here’s what I think speech sounds like.

   “How’s your mother?” he said as he unfolded his napkin.

“She’s fine,” she said guardedly.

“So, you know, um, how your mother has that horse?” he asked.

“What about it?” she answered.

“Well, I, uh, saw a picture of it the other day. Or maybe its perfect twin. I mean, I can’t be absolutely certain…”


He looked down at his hands. “The picture was old, like really old.”

She narrowed her eyes. “How old?”

He looked up, momentarily meeting her gaze. “Um, well, it was taken in 1873.”

She sighed. “Desmond, for the last time, our horse cannot travel in time.”

This first example is consistant with the way people hold a conversation. However, let me tighten it up for dialogue:

   “So, you know how your mother has that horse?” he asked as he unfolded his napkin.

“What about it?” she answered, her eyes narrowing in anticipation of his next statement.

He looked down at his hands. “I saw a picture of it the other day.” He paused for effect, and then raised his gaze to meet hers. “A picture taken in 1873.”

She sighed. “Desmond, for the last time, our horse cannot travel in time.”

My first example contains a lot of unnecessary words, the back-and-forth of niceties required by the inaccuracy of the spoken word.  I supposed you could argue that it also contains more nuance, but honestly, all that junk just seems to get in the way of the story.

Just because I like to show that there is an exception to everything in writing, the woman in our example may be the kind of person who expects you to inquire after the fortune of her mother. In this case, the question of “How’s your mother?” becomes important, either by its presence or by its absence.

And given that there are always exceptions, while “said” is tried and true, don’t be afraid to mix it up once in a while. Even the most egregious sins can be forgiven once a chapter. Just don’t make a habit of it.

* Lately, I’ve been reading a bit of P. G. Wodehouse, and I love the way he pokes fun at dialogue tagging.

In introducing this uncle by marriage, I showed him to be a man who, in moments of keen emotion, had a tendency to say ‘What?’ and keep on saying it. He did so now. ‘What? What? What? What? What?’ he ejaculated, making five in all. ‘What?’ he added, bringing it up to the round half dozen.
–Joy in the Morning, 1946

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